Nice guy Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) has determined to escape from life as a cubicle drone and ascend to the lofty heights of the executive floor at Fender Financial.  Optimistic, in the face of recent rejection, that girlfriend Julie will soon consent to an ‘upgrade’ to fiancée he believes his success will secure their happily ever after.  Opportunity knocks when company head Lance Fender offers him an audition for a future with the company – an invitation to his exclusive Winner’s Dinner.  The price of entry: bring your own schmuck!

Tim cannot in good conscience attend.  He has given his word to Julie that he will not.  Tim always keeps his word, after all he is a nice guy. At least he was, until heartbroken IRS man Barry Speck stumbled in front of his car and unleashed his well-meaning friendship upon Tim’s once happy life.  Barry’s hobby is so preposterous and his life so inconsequential that the gentle saboteur seems the ideal guest for dinner and promotion a mere three courses away…

I have yet to see Le Dîner de Cons, the 1998 French farce which inspired Dinner for Schmucks, but I must confess I’d had higher hopes for the material.  I had imagined a black comedy in the vein of In the Company of Men (perhaps with a slightly lighter heart) – the pratfalls and Carry On quality of the bondage gags came as something of a shock to the system.  The careless cruelty of the Winner’s Dinner is a lovely set-up for a comedy and when dinner finally arrives it is well worth the wait.  However, the story takes such a meandering path to the table that at times I found my mind wandering away from the film altogether.

The strengths of Dinner for Schmucks lie almost entirely in its performances, the weaknesses in its plot.  The supporting cast (including The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd) were an utter treat – underpinning the weaker moments of the story – and a sub-plot involving Julie’s sexually incontinent client Kieran (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) was almost worth the price of entry alone.  Kieran’s ‘wild’ self-portraits and Barry’s rodent still lives provided the majority of the film’s genuinely funny moments and the opening scene united the entire audience in surprised laughter.  David Walliams also shone, albeit gaudily, as an odious prospective client, it was nice to see him finally play slightly against camp type.  And be sure to look out for Zach (The Hangover) Galifianakis’ mesmeric turn!

Where the film fails is in its desire to unite slapstick with sentiment, the script flaunts vulgar and lazy humour almost to the point of distaste.  Steve Carrell too confused, playing Barry with the strangest mix of tenderness – as the tragic clown who cannot see he is ridiculous – and clumsiness – as the circus clown who blunders, flails and falls.  Once the first course is served Dinner for Schmucks comes in to its own, but I fear for some it may arrive far too late.  The guests are a brilliantly conceived sideshow of the weird and the WTF.  Although the biggest schmucks at the table are, of course, the smug men in suits.

Notes of perfect melancholy, alongside the humour, saved this lopsided film from descending into soulless schlock.  I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Rudd’s performance – he was engaging & endearing – and his presence elevated the film above generic slapshtick.  In its entirety Dinner for Schmucks was undoubtedly flawed but there were irresistible moments of sheer delicious comedy which made it quite impossible to dislike.

Dinner for Schmucks is released in the UK on September 3rd